The Economization of Life – Michelle Murphy*

 “Neoliberalism is profoundly a feminist issue…because we can understand historically how the techniques and practices of neoliberalism emerged out of the experimental intervention particularly into the lives of women.” 

Interview by Duygu Kaşdoğan
*IstanbuLab Feminist Technoscience Interview Series (I)

Michelle Murphy is Professor of History, and Gender and Women Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. Alongside her work as the Director of the Technoscience Research Unit, she is engaged in a diverse array of academic and activist groups, including the Technoscience Salon, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), the Endocrine Disruptors Action Group (ED Action), and the Politics of Evidence Working Group (PoE). Her work focuses on chemical infrastructures, environmental justice, race and colonialism, and reproduction. In the following interview, we discuss her recent book, The Economization of Life (2017, Duke Press). 

It is my pleasure to open the feminist technoscience interview series with Michelle Murphy. Welcome Michelle!  

Thank you so much for inviting me.

Shall we begin with a short background of your book? How did you get interested in writing a book about population and economy?


Yes, well, this book really follows from the research I did for my previous work called Seizing the Means of Reproduction. In that book, I was looking at grassroots feminist practices, mostly from the United States, but also connected to transnational circulations. While I was doing that work, which was looking at things like manual suction abortion and its circulation as a feminist practice, I became incredibly unsatisfied with the way that population, population control, and economic development was being characterized by the literature on the biopolitics of pollution and economy—mostly written by men in Europe and the United States.. On the one hand, work like that of let’s say, Timothy Mitchell, on the history of economy was really inspirational, but it left out a whole legacy of feminist work—for example the work of wonderful Marxist feminist like Selma James, who really pushed back on a conventional sense that the economy and some Marxist thought didn’t include all the kinds of care labor that is often so gendered. I was also really unsatisfied with Foucault even though I was inspired by him. The very question of biopolitics comes out of his work—both his work thinking about sex and a little bit on population from History of Sexuality,but also his work on the Birth of Biopolitics,thinking about the rise of neoliberalism. But all of that left out the massive, important history in the twentieth century of population control – of new forms of racism and disposable life that characterized the “development” projects of the new empires and imperialisms of the late twentieth century. And so, this project was about trying to make a map for myself and others about what happened and how did it work.

It’s a short book, but I found your book very provocative. For example, you invite us to refuse the term population. Would you say more on it? How can we actually drop using the term population? And, you define population as a problem space. For example, the mainstream talk around climate change is mostly based on ‘the problem of population.’

 In feminist science studies, there is a deep, thick archive of feminist work exposing how violent population control was in the second half of the twentieth century—how people were coercively sterilized, how lives were devalued and considered not worth living based on either calculations or their contribution to the macro economy of the nation. This is tied up with notions of caste, of poverty, of race. This kind of pernicious past is a globalized history, it’s a transnational history. There’s very few places on the planet that weren’t touched by the project of population control. At the same time, population control emerged in the second half of the twentieth century with the moment when people were turning away from eugenics-based thinking, turning away from biological claims of racial inferiority. And, in that turning away, in the sciences and the social sciences, there was a shift in what was acceptable to say as policy makers or politicians. People very often substitute population as a neutral word to replace race.

In my work, I come to believe that population is a really violent word because  – whether it comes out of ecological management or thinking about population policies of the nation state – it is a word that is tied to a project about counting not just the number of lives or let’s say the mass of life, but it is also tied to a management or intervention project that is about intervening in how much life there is. It is a project of intervening in life, as a project of deciding who should be born, who should be saved, who should be preserved, but also –violently – who can be culled, who should be killed, who can be disposed of. This logic, which is deeply bio-political, is the problem space of population. Population as we normally use it today is a Cold War kind of object, a Cold War way of thinking that is really tied to militarism, empire, patriarchy. So, it is not at all a neutral term. And why I want to be against “population “ as a term is because I want to say: can we think about ways of talking about collective life, aggregate life, that does not rest on a logic that wants to sort lives worth living, lives to be elevated, privileged etcetera? Can we come up with other concepts that may be attentive to things like the inequity of our distributions and life supports, rather than just the question of mass number – the total number – and this question of lives not worth living, lives that are not of value, lives that decline in value as they live. So this is why it is a problem space for me. It is a problem space that, like economy, so profoundly shaped the lives of the people in the twentieth century, so profoundly shaped what we could call the “banal violences,” like war by other means. So it is not just death by guns, but death by policy, death by starvation, death by all sorts of forms of state planning that really has been violent in people’s ordinary lives, especially women.

In the 1970s, and especially in 1980s, Bangladesh became one of the most important places for the kind of experimental development of the practices of what we can call population control.

I want to talk about your focus on Bangladesh as a site to understand all these processes. For example, you say Bangladesh became an experimental site through these development projects, NGOs, etcetera. This discussion throws us back to the very introduction of your book where you talk about the experiments of biologist Raymond Pearl. Can you elaborate on this?

Absolutely. So, Raymond Pearl was an incredibly prolific biologist in the early twentieth century. He was actually trained in statistics coming out of the tradition of Galton, the eugenic statistical tradition. He is someone who brought more mathematical refinement to that kind of eugenics practice as well as an experimental lab-based practice. He very much had a lab and did experiments with fruit flies, with mice, with bacteria, and was trying to understand a question that had animated eugenics, which was differential fertility: why do some communities of people have less children than other communities of people. And for eugenics that worry was: why do the unfit people have babies rather than the wonderfully privileged who don’t have enough babies—this kind of racist thinking. So, Pearl really innovated in that work and he rejected hereditary kinds of argument in eugenics for mathematical reasons, saying that eugenics in the early twentieth century did not have a sound theory of heredity. Instead, he put forward the question, in a more statistical sense, about managing fertility, whether it to be for bacteria, fruit flies, or humans, as a question about the rate of population. And, he did experiments with bottles of fruit flies in which he tried to show that there was an arc to how population worked, where you would first have a period where birth rates and death rates were steady, followed by a period where population increase would sharply rise, and then population increase would hit a plateau where there is not enough resources and you would have mass death. Unlike a Malthusian story, which we all know well – at least students in Canada and United States, for example are more well trained in Malthus’ thinking than in Marxist thinking, for example – for Pearl, population was an experimental object. That means he was not just observing this trend, he was seeing it as something that could be intervened in and manipulated. So, he asked how can we change the parameters of this experimental set up, such as the amount of food, and thereby alter birth rates and death rates. This was very much the project of colonialism and it is also a kind of biopolitical project of public health, which then turned into the kind of postcolonial project very much fostered by American Empire, which wanted to intervene in birth rates all around the world. What Pearl did was he experimentalized population and made it something that was not just observed but that needed to be intervened in and managed.

To answer the second part of your question: how do we get from Pearl to Bangladesh? When Pearl did his work, he believed that he was seeing patterns that adhered whether it be a fruit fly or human nation. He helped, along with Margaret Sanger, to found the international society of population that put forward the worry of how to govern fertility. He was mostly concerned with the United States and Europe in the years between World War I and World War II. But after World War II, this question was moved from one about the United States and Europe, and became a question about all of the postcolonial or decolonizing/recolonized world.

So, why my book ended up focusing on Bangladesh is for two reasons. One, in my earlier work—when I was studying feminist practices of reproductive health and reproductive justice—my research always kept bringing me to Bangladesh. The archives of the 1960s and 70s, when I was looking at experimental family planning, when project sought to get women to take up contraception, all those practices and experiments that were happening in the 1960s and 70s would reference work in Bangladesh, and bring me to Bangladesh. So, when I came to do this work on population, I was also following this line in the archive, where the archive was bringing me to Bangladesh because in the 1970s, and especially in 1980s, Bangladesh became one of the most important places for the kind of experimental development of the practices of what we can call population control. Moreover, we can say all of South Asia was an important place where family planning and the problem of population was an important part of fashioning a postcolonial planning apparatus of the state. In Bangladesh after the war of the 1970s, which was a genocidal war with many deaths, followed by a famine. When the United States was able to reenter after the war in the name of economic development and humanitarianism, it was able to establish a region in Bangladesh as a multi-generational laboratory where something like a quarter of a million people were regularly experimented on from about 1960 up until the present. This site is really important for the history of understanding population practices, family planning practices, contraceptive practices, but, it also turns out that this research site, Matlab, is also the place where experiments were done with developing micro-credit practices, giving micro loans to women. Bangladesh is also the location of the world’s largest NGO, BRAC. So, it is a place in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that had incredible innovation and experimental exuberance on the ground of violence. Out of this violence came the production of all these forms of what we can call neoliberal governmentality, that then came to characterize economic development all around the world, as well as national projects of managing people, population, and poverty. Bangladesh, I believe, in that period is an incredibly important site for understanding the history of neoliberal technical practices and that history of innovation in Bangladesh, neoliberal innovation, is deeply tied to projects of gender, deeply tied to projects of reproduction; they are inseparable. So it helps us to see how neoliberalism, which is often characterized as a kind of audit culture of the state, is really profoundly a feminist issue, is really profoundly an intersectional reproductive justice issue because we can understand historically how the techniques and practices of neoliberalism emerged out of the experimental intervention into the lives of women.

It was interesting to read in the opening pages of the 2007 World Bank report that Bangladesh has been a “virtual laboratory” for research…

Yes. It is completely explicit. This is a quality of this logic of the economization of life. It is unlike, say, biological racist beliefs that obviously people still hold, that people are still motivated by, which is often hidden. The logic of the economization of life is assigning a differential value to human life worth based on its ability to foster economic growth of the nation state. These quantifications of disposable life are things that people speak about with no shame. It is a completely acceptable way of talking about which lives are worth living and which lives aren’t.  It is completely acceptable to not just call Bangladesh a laboratory, but to celebrate Bangladesh as a laboratory. The Grameen Bank celebrated Bangladesh as a laboratory, BRAC celebrates Bangladesh as a laboratory. So, this is an acceptable, even a palatable, way that capital, empire and patriarchy are able to express themselves through the terms and practices of techno-science.

Technoscience is a word that helps us get our research out of the lab and into the everyday practices of quantification, of experiment that are used in places like the military, in hospitals, by the state, by corporations, and to see these as sites as where scientific technical knowledge is not just used but produced.

You define economization of life as a historically specific regime of valuation, that is generated through techno-scientific practices rather than markets. I really want to hear more about this shift in focus from market to technoscientific practices? When we look at these technoscientific practices what becomes visible?

In making this claim that the economization of life was a technoscientific project and needs to be understand as such, I am not saying that I don’t believe in political economy analysis. What I am saying is that the version of the macro economy, the version of the economy that exists in the container of the nation-state that we miraculate with models, that we make visible to ourselves with measures like GDP or consumer confidence or unemployment rate, this economy has almost no relation to how capitalism works. It is rather a project of tremendous erasure.  It is a project that erases the distributions of wealth. GDP only totals the reported productivity as one number. . Moreover, look at the history of economy as an object created doubly by economics as a discipline, but also by state apparatuses, which have to make statistical departments that do sample surveys and try to collect data that goes into the measures of things like GDP. When you dig into this, you realize that it has almost no relation to the world. The official vision of economy is based largely on very simple mathematical models that were developed using no data, that were developed because it made elegant diagrams and it is filled with all sort of beliefs, such as that economy is in a container or the economy works by cybernetic flows. So, the economy is something that is really miraculated for us, I call it a phantasmagram, it’s something that is full of fantasies, it’s full of feelings and dreamscapes that give the numbering of econometrics their force.  If we look at the history of the economy when it emerged in the 1930s, it was developed for military planning. It was a really complicated phenomenon that we brought into being in the late 20th century that we now just take for granted, people just believe the economy is something that exists or that GDP is somehow an accurate measure when feminist economists have shown that GDP is a ridiculous measure, actually all practicing economists know that GDP is actually a problematic measure, it’s an extremely fuzzy and undependable number. Yet, we turn to GDP reports in terms of gauging the effectivity of a government. This is the reason why I say economy is technoscientific, and here let me step back and say why I use the word technoscience.

As someone who is in the field of history of science and science and technology studies, technoscience is a word that helps us get our research out of the lab and into the everyday practices of quantification, of experiment that are used in places like the military, in hospitals, by the state, by corporations, and to see these as sites as where scientific technical knowledge is not just used but produced. This is why I use the word technoscience. I use it to understand that this large practice of governing the economy came to territorialize the entire planet in the second half of the 20th century as every part of the world was forced to organize itself as a nation-states governing economies. Yet, we know, as people, that there are many other ways to organize ourselves and our values. In the second half of the 20th century, every part of the world was forced to organize itself as a nation-state governing economy. The technical history of that is incredibly important to understanding our present-day condition and the ways that violence works through the pedantic numbers and technical practices of the state.

I think it is very important. You also talk about differences in the politics of reproduction or the differences of specific valuation regimes.  When we move from Bangladesh to the campaign, “Invest in a Girl,” there we see a different, but at the same time, similar logic. It would be nice to talk a little bit about this campaign. 

 One of the things that really came out doing historical research on, “The Economization of Life,” is how thick the archive of quantitative analysis is, and was, for measuring the economy, measuring life worth, measuring fertility. If we go to Bangladesh, the archive of making counts of girls and women, and of linking those counts to counts of fertility, that archive is so thick, it is like the analog of big data of the 20th century. It is analogue thick data. Out of that whole archive of number, you can find projects producing calculations of the value of life as well as calculations of lives not worth spending more than five cents for medical care on, or the that calculate people who should not be born because they don’t contribute to economy and are better prevented from living at all. That big archive of numbers allows all sorts of new correlations to be made in the 20th century. Once we have a kind of computer assisted statistical analysis, social science researchers were able to go back to that archive and reanimate those numbers, find other kinds of correlations. They were able to make new kinds of financialized claims as opposed to the older style of calculating the value of life. In the 21st century, we begin to see this financialized logic put forward by economist Lawrence Summers, who the people in the United States know very well because he advised Obama and as a controversial president of Harvard who was famous for saying sexist things about women’s minds, whereas people in Turkey might know him better as the chief economist of the World Bank in the 90s. Summers put forward his argument that investing in poor girls’ education was the most effective investment in the developing world for getting increases in the GDP.  And this is because, on the one hand, it increases girls’ labour value and contributes to GDP directly, and, secondly, it decreases their fertility and therefore you have less lives not worth living at the same time as you have an increase in labor value. So once The Girl is identified as kind of undervalued stock on a financialized market to be invested in. You thus have the rise of “Invest in a Girl” campaigns. And once we have the meltdown of the 2007 and 2008, a kind of global recession, the girl emerges as this salvation figure. It is not just any girl, it is the poor, black or brown girl, often Muslim, who is seen as the world’s undeveloped, untapped stock – a value who, if one gives a marginal investment into her primary school education, will do all this wonderful gendered labor for their community and will become wonderful workers for the export processing zones of the world, and thus increase economic value like no other investment. This gets repackaged as a feminist project or we could say it is a project where a certain kind of liberal imperial feminism meets financialization, and thus investing in the girl gets heralded as both a feminist project of empowerment because it benefits the economy and by virtue, the world.

The other side to this formulation of investable life is all the forms of life then that are not heralded in a Goldman Sachs’ report on “Invest in the Girl” as a good investment. There are Muslim boys all around the world who in fact at the very same moment are being heralded as dangerous, unruly, killable forms of life in American empire and all around the world, and so this figure of an invested girl has a very disturbing underbelly. Even as we all want to celebrate girls and we all want to argue for their right to education, to schools, to employment, to autonomy, and to self-determination of their bodies, we also want to recognize that many of these things that we, as feminists, profoundly care about, they are being twisted and reattached to a project of global finance and empire that we need to have a very critical awareness of.

What I want is another kind of way of talking about collective life, another kind of reproductive politics, building on feminist reproductive justice by women of color in the United States, in Canada, and all around the world who want to think about distributions.

 We may say fertility is the grammar and ghost of education similar to how you talk about race as the grammar and ghost of population. In the book, you claim for an ontological politics of reproduction. What do you mean by it?

I’m going to start by going back to the invest in the girl campaign. This campaign is based on a calculation that says that the girl is an effective investment with high rates of return. We can imagine a different calculation that says guns are the most effective investment in the world with the highest rate of return for GDP. There are many ways that calculation could go. In this particular historical moment, girls were made to be the best investment. I am drawing our attention to the very nature of the calculation that poses the question about what the most effective investment with the highest rate of return is. We see this in pharmaceuticals, how one drug, even if it benefits people, can no longer become an effective investment and instead, the pharmaceutical companies invest in a drug that has many side effects, that is dangerous, that is expensive, but brings higher rates of return. So that opens the question of reproduction not just as the question of child birth, the right to bear or not bear children, the right to have autonomy over one’s body, the right to fertility and sexuality, but reproduction in an older sense, we could say, an older Marxist-Feminist sense, as social reproduction – as the distribution of what gets to exist in time, what gets to persist in time, and what is abandoned, what is actively violated, what is turned into a race that designated as destroyable. So, when I talk about an ontology of reproduction, what I am thinking about is that if we confine reproduction or a feminist politics of reproductive justice, to only what happens inside bodies and to bodily sexuality, bodily health and child bearing, we are leaving out all of the relations that go into supporting some lives and violating and harming others. Or, we could say, all the relations that go into supporting and violating life simultaneously, because it is not just that bodies are sorted between those that are valued and those that are unvalued, but that for many of us, we live these relations as simultaneous contradictions, some of which are keeping us alive and some of which are killing us.

Let’s think about turning on the tap. We get that water in our apartment or in our house to drink and that keeps us alive, it’s part of our life supports, but at the same time that water might be full of all sorts of chemical pollutants. It’s killing us at the same time, it’s hurting us. It might have lead in it, it is affecting your children and their cognition, their minds, and their life. This is the larger question of what do we count as reproduction, where is the beginning and end of reproduction, what are the relations that go into sustaining life over time. That is the ontological project of reproduction. If we look at population and we look at economy, these two big phenomena that empire and capitalism and the nation-state gave us in the 20th century, as the way we arrange our world, can we come back and try to put forward other ways of talking about collective life that resists and refuses the economy of population? I don’t think we have to be satisfied by the concepts that non-innocent and compromised technoscience gives us. I think that part of our role as science studies scholars is to try to offer better concepts, better concepts for study, better concepts for understanding the phenomena that make up our world. So we can think about a distributed ontology of reproduction that includes all infrastructures of support and includes all these relations of violence that make our lives impossible or diminishes us. We can also begin to think about what is our politics of organizing together? What is our politics of solidarity that connect us across these distributions? This is important when we think about climate change. If we stick to population – which has been revived as the problem of climate change — population is the problem of too many people putting too much burden on the world. Well, we can look at other work that says there’s a hundred corporations that have been responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. We can see that the responsibility for the distribution of violence is not equal. We also see that the burden that people put on the planet in terms of the life supports they feel entitled to demand in terms of consumption, in terms of cars, gigantic houses and wealth, this too is incredibly unequal. So how could we possibly, as feminists, support thinking about population again which is really a vilification of poor, racialized people who do not contribute to climate change and are going to be hurt most by climate change.

What I want is another kind of way of talking about collective life, another kind of reproductive politics, building on feminist reproductive justice by women of color in the United States, in Canada, and all around the world who want to think about distributions. We can think about distributions of wealth and wealth creation, distributions of accumulation and privilege, but we can also think about the distributions of the burdens of exposures to violence. So, there are so many ways we can think about reproduction that are both economic and much more than economic.  Our life supports are so much more than what capital hopes we can imagine and I think it is just urgent that we attend to all those life supports and relations that exceed capital’s imaginary because that is how we are going to find other ways to live together. So that’s what I am thinking about in terms of an ontology of reproduction, a politics of trying to speculate ways of imagining other ways of being.

The focus of my work has been much more on questions of infrastructures, technoscience, and practices and trying to think about how those relations, those infrastructures of relations, make some kind of flourishing possible, but makes also other kinds of flourishing not possible. It’s putting the emphasis on relations and relationality as a place of politics.

You do not romanticize collective life or solidarity. I want to hear more about the way you perceive this book’s contribution to the feminist technoscience scholarship.

I think you are right that I am a kind of nonromantic, or sometimes I think of myself as a more-than-pessimist. I really believe it is important to not turn away from violent relations and our entanglements in them, so when we understand distributed reproduction or we understand ourselves as being in collectivities, it is not that we are all just going to be happy together, it is that we are in relationships where we’re caught in hurting each other as we try to be alive. We do that in all sorts of pedestrian ways – whether it is the plastic that we use in our lives but then becomes a micro plastic smog in the world that harms in so many ways, whether it be driving in our car, whether it be just our attachment to things like the nation-state as a form – we are involved in all sorts of non-innocent relations and these must be continuously named and responsibilized; that would be what a distributed politics of reproduction would look like. It’s how we are caught in relations that aren’t just propping us up, but also include violences. Can we look squarely at those violences and not just at the ways of being together in a happy way? Can we look squarely at those violences and think about how to diminish them. Another way of thinking about it is if you are coming out of an intersectional feminism, you understand that gender, race, capital, nation-state, disability, ability – all these things are clustered together in knots and we can’t separate that kind of exercises of power into single-issue politics.  We have to understand ourselves as embroiled in these knots and that there is no way of acting inside them non-innocently. There is no politics of purity to follow out of feminism, I believe. If we think about Donna Haraway’s vision of “becoming with many” – you know, I am profoundly influenced by Donna Haraway and I respect her tremendously – this kind of becoming that I tend towards maybe is different than hers. “In becoming with the many,” I think Donna Haraway’s analysis tends to foreground questions of becoming with humans and nonhumans – thinking of the register of the kinds of organisms that make up the world and how we live together with them and flourish in our relations together. I guess the focus of my work has been much more on questions of infrastructures, technoscience, and practices and trying to think about how those relations, those infrastructures of relations, make some kind of flourishing possible, but makes also other kinds of flourishing not possible. It’s putting the emphasis on relations and relationality as a place of politics. It’s not really that my argument is in any kind of conflict or contradiction with Haraway’s work, but rather it is that the emphasis is different and I think I tend to emphasize a more pessimistic story, a more violent world that we are struggling in. A world where the apocalypse is not on the horizon but it has been happening for a long time for Indigenous people, for stateless people, for refugees, for enslaved people, and it goes on and on.

So starting from that place it is a different departure point. Then the struggle becomes how to be more than pessimistic, how to squarely understand the exercise of power and then try to do something more than that. That is something, in many ways, I did learn from Donna Haraway. She was really important for not just doing analysis but offering alternative figures like the cyborg. Offering alternative figurations of the world that might be less violent, and I think that project is crucial, but I’d also look at someone like Frantz Fanon. Fanon, I think, is another important departure point for science studies that has really been under engaged with. Fanon as a practicing scientist, as a practicing doctor, wrote tremendously important texts about the politics of technoscience. He wrote as someone,  who was wresting with a profound pessimism, dealing with torture, dealing with the violence of colonialism and the decolonial struggle, the inescapability of violence. He theorized being forced to inhabit a kind of being through Blackness where he is going to constantly having to deal with dehumanization and the pain of dehumanization and, at the same time, he would call for bringing invention into existence, for inventing a new humanity. How do we come out of these colonial violences into something else? I learn from Fanon to understand this project of what does it mean to become in time? What has to be refused? What has to be destroyed? What has to be dismantled in order to become something else? That’s the kind of pessimistic approach which I don’t want to devalue. I think it’s important because it is about recognizing the pain of life, the pain of our circumstances, and not turning away from ongoing racisms, ongoing war. So that is how I am trying to wrestle with these things. There’s not really an answer, but it is a project.

Thank you, Michelle. I look forward to talking more about your new projects.  

Thank you, I really appreciate the opportunity and all these really great questions that get me thinking. I look forward to talking more.

Transcript by Aybike Alkan, Ph.D. Candidate, Sociology Department, Koç University
Editing by Jessica Caporusso, Ph.D. Candidate, Anthropology Department, York University

*Image used in Murphy’s book: “Raymond Pearl’s bottle of Drosophila at three points in time (Pearl, The Biology of Population Growth, 1930)”

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